The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender)

We are funny people. We hate to be controlled and we do not like people who try.

If you are a controlling person, it is maddening to be told you’re a controlling person.  You want them to take it back and you will work at it until they do. If you want to make your spouse crazy, tell them they are controlling. They’ll spend the next thirty minutes making you take it back.

This is what makes the terrible twos so terrible. The main job of a two-year-old is to figure out who he is by testing the waters. He may not have the vocabulary for what he is doing. You won’t hear a two-year old saying, “Please pardon me while I test the boundaries of our relationship, but I am self-actualizing and need to figure out just how much of this family I’m in control of.” He won’t say it that way but he knows what he is after. He’s after power. Just how much control can I get of these two people who are raising me? Where are the lines, and can I redraw them so they include everything I want?

That’s how we learn even in adulthood what we can control and what we can’t. We learn by pressing the limits and like a two year old, our goal is to control everything we can. We want to control our finances, our futures, our families, our pets, our children, our jobs, our schedules … everything.

We want control. That is the fallen human condition and the motivation for all spiritual rebellion. We hate it when we see control-freakishness in anyone else because their need for control might mean we have to give up territory.

But here’s the ultimate irony. To the extent that I try to get or keep control, I will work against my God-given design and end up owned by my own rebellion. This is because I am not designed for control but surrender.

Let that sink in: You are not designed for control, but surrender.

We find proof of this over and over in the story of God.

  • God told the Israelites, “If you want freedom, you have to leave what you know and head for the desert.”
  • Jesus told his followers that if you want to gain your life, you have to lose it. “What does it profit you,” he said, “if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • The Bible’s prescription for the sickness of control is always surrender — often defined in the scripture as a call to wholeheartedness — and the Bible’s promise is that if we will lean into surrender we will find freedom.

So here’s the question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Because when we choose surrender over control, we are choosing peace over anxiety.

What do our anxieties and fears drive us to control? In my next post, I’ll talk more about why we choose control over surrender, and how we can recover a surrendered — and healthy — life.

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Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

It is not what the pastor is out there doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through the pastor.Steve Seamands

The most challenging part of ministry for me — as I assume it is for many other pastors — is that tension that exists between a demanding ministry and the need for personal spiritual health. As an extrovert who is driven by new ideas and fresh challenges, I struggle to “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10). I struggle to sift through multiple good ideas to set priorities. In the natural, I prefer a crowded life to a focused life. As a spiritual entrepreneur with a natural desire to start new things, I prefer to generate new ministries rather than develop existing ones.

What motivates me is both blessing and curse. I can accomplish a lot, but at what spiritual cost?

As a pastor, ministry leader or faithful Christian, what motivates you? Before anything is accomplished through you, what has been accomplished within you?

Transformational ministry begins with a right heart but for too many of us, the motives that move us are less than mature. Consider these symptoms as you perform a little honest self-exegesis. Are you personally challenged by:

  • over-compensating for incompetency
  • fear of failure
  • pressure from others
  • unexplained/ unexplored compulsions
  • competitiveness (preaching to myself here)
  • arrogance
  • an inability to self-limit
  • feelings of powerlessness
  • an immature knowledge of what Kingdom advancement requires
  • productivity sheerly for productivity’s sake

Peter Scazzero writes about the havoc wreaked “when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work …”

I’m exposed by Scazzero’s insight. Laid bare. Lord, have mercy.

If immature and unhealthy motives are the sickness, then what is the cure? Sanctification is the work of confronting our impure motives and finding ways to heal them. Scazzero calls it “self-exegesis.” It is the hidden, quiet, spiritual work of examining ourselves, piece by piece (not to become self-absorbed, but to become whole), drawing out every impurity and laying it before the Holy Spirit for scrutiny and healing. It is about being still and knowing not just God but what God knows about me. It isn’t just confession, but repentance — a willingness to change toward Christ’s values and life.

How can we stimulate this spiritual work within ourselves? Seamands offers several options:

  • Seek out a liminal experience. A liminal experience begins with where we are, then breaks with our routines and comforts in order to return us to a higher level than we began. It is to cease being what was for the sake of becoming a new thing. Spending time in another culture can create a liminal experience. Retreats can have this effect. Time in a monastery works. Even a day by the water or in a forest can contribute to this result. Can you make room in this year’s calendar for at least one extended (a weekend or more) liminal experience for the sake of your own sanctification?
  • Experience contrasting views. Intentionally shifting perspective can help to develop empathy as well as create new solutions to current roadblocks. Do you expose yourself to viewpoints or lifestyles other than your own? Are you rubbing shoulders with people who live in poverty, people with disabilities, people from other walks of life? An African teaching says we are who we are because of other people. This is never more true than when we take time to learn from those least like us. Who is teaching you what God thinks, not just about people like you but about the rest of the world?
  • Fall in love. How does one called to advance the Kingdom of God bear God’s missional heart without bearing an undo burden or losing touch with the love of God? It is far too easy to bear the weight of others’ suffering and the brunt of their immaturity to the point that it hardens the heart of the giver and dulls all spiritual senses. How does one avoid that fate? Surely this is why God continually called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, for example). He’d seen them grow hard toward others, so he called for a softening toward the things that break his heart. Fall in love again, God might say to the jaded spiritual leader, in the healthiest, most spiritual sense of that phrase. Give your whole heart to someone or some people or back to God. In fact, this business of “falling in love” may be at the heart of self-exegesis for the sake of others. When is the last time you gave your whole heart to someone … to your people … to God?

I’m convinced that pursuing wholeheartedness is the work of sanctification, and also the work of the Word alive in us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … “

The work we do as followers of Jesus — the work of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced — is glorious but hard work. How do we do it without letting it wear us out? Without letting it harden our hearts?

Steve Seamands has asked: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?”

This question resonates deeply with me. Am I working off my own steam, or am I making room for encountering the Spirit, for letting Him lead? When I begin with my natural inclinations and immature motives, I develop a “thin” ministry that will not withstand real-world pressures. If I’m to avoid burn-out or a crusty heart, I must learn to self-exegete — to make room for liminal experiences, for other viewpoints, for wholehearted love. I must intentionally exegete my own soul and pursue my own sanctification. Only then will I have the stamina and wisdom to engage the world as it is, even as I work to advance the Kingdom of God.

What plan have you put in place to intentionally work out your on-going sanctification, for the sake of others? 

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Lord, bend us.

In 1903, Evan Roberts was 25 years old. He was a Christian, coal miner, and student who began to pray for God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of this season of prayer, Roberts found himself at an evangelistic event where a man named Seth Joshua was preaching. Roberts heard Joshua pray, “Lord, bend us,” and at the sound of those words the Holy Spirit grabbed him.

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

Roberts wrote: “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst … I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, ‘Bend me, bend me!!’ It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom … I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the savior.”

After that experience, Evan would wake up at one in the morning and pray for hours, invaded by an intense love of God and a deep desire to see others come to Christ. He began to pray together with a few others: “Bend us, Lord.”

A few weeks later, after seeing a vision of God touching Wales, he predicted a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He began preach across Wales and within about nine months, over 100,000 people had come to Christ. Five years later, reports say 80,000 of those people were still in church. The effect on the culture of the country was profound. Bars emptied out. People used the money to buy clothes and food for their families, pay back debts and give to the church. People became kinder; there was a wave of forgiveness.

Sadly, Evan, didn’t last. Like firewood that wasn’t ready for burning, his own personal fires fizzled quickly. Losing his mental health, he became arrogant and short-tempered; his sermons filled with condemnation. He moved in with a woman who distorted his message. He spent a year confined to bed, pretty close to insane. He lived to be 72 years old but preached his last sermon when he was in his twenties.

Lord, bend us.

David Thomas has studied great awakenings and revivals and has written: “There is this built-in self-correcting, reanimating capacity in the Christian movement due to the Spirit’s residence in the Church. Christian history is in many ways the story of successive seasons of awakening. We love it. We yearn for it. We need it, desperately, more every day — in our culture, in our churches, in our families, in ourselves. We want to be in on awakening, to be in on a work of God in our day. Again, we have a soft spot for this, a longing for this: we want to be about sowing for a great awakening. But what about that sowing piece? … Where does it come from? Where does awakening start? How do we sow for a great awakening? … I’ve come to believe that the true seedbed of awakening is the plowed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (as it says in Psalm 126). Prayer is the precursor to the work of God … always the anticipating act of awakening.”

Lord, bend us.

Thomas says that a call to travailing prayer isn’t a call to feel guilty about how little we actually pray. It is a call to become more open to awakening, and to let that desire make us less casual in our prayers. “I wonder what it would take for us to move in the direction of travailing prayer,” Thomas writes. “How bad it will have to get … if we’re not there already?”

I wonder, too. Who among us is ready to take God at his word? Who is ready to spend time in repentance, time in surrender, time in confession of faith? Who is willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be moved to their knees?  Who is ready to cry out, not just for ourselves, but for the effectiveness of the Church, for the effectiveness of the gospel flowing through us, for the gospel’s power to renew the world?

Lord, bend us!

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Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, was a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response was a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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The best you can do is good enough.

The Israelites did not complain. I don’t know how I missed it before but in the lengthy and detailed story of the building of the tabernacle, there is no record of complaint ever by the Israelites.

I’m not talking here about their day-to-day existence; I’m talking about when they were constructing the tent that would stand as a sign of the presence of God in their midst. The Israelites — who complained about everything; who wanted to return to Egypt and slavery so badly that they might as well have walked through the desert backward; who required a system just to hear the arguments they had with each other — do not seem to have complained at all through the entire construction of the tabernacle. The story says that when they were asked to build it, they gave out of their hearts freely, more than was needed, for the materials. And they seem to have organized amiably under the leadership of two lay persons who would direct the work. Through that whole process, they never complained, or at least no one complained enough to deserve mention.

Let me just say that again: There is no record of a complaint during the world’s first church construction project.

Talk about a miracle.

And just as noteworthy is how God and Moses received their work when it was done. Keep in mind that this was intricate, high-level craftsmanship directed by meticulous instruction and under the guidance of regular guys who had probably never built a tabernacle before. Yet, when they were done Moses’ response rates one verse (Exodus 39:43): “Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord and commanded. So Moses blessed them.” No tick list of change orders, no tweaking, no discouraged gee-I-wish-we’d-done-that-part-differently comments. Moses simply inspected it, saw they’d done their job faithfully and then blessed it.

This one verse is bigger than we may realize because here’s the thing: It isn’t possible — we’ve all been in enough construction projects to know — that they did everything perfectly. The work was too meticulous (God gave instructions right down to the design of the curtain holders) and the people were just not that bright. But at the end of the day, according to how the story is told, the best they could do was good enough. In other words, obedience trumps perfectionism. Every time.

After Moses blessed the work, God filled the tabernacle and completed it with his Presence (Exodus 40:34). This is also a profound point. Without God’s Presence, a perfect building would have been useless weight in a desert setting but with his Presence, an imperfect building became holy.

The tabernacle, then, becomes the Old Testament visual aid for being made perfect in love. God didn’t demand perfection in the details but seemed to grade on faithfulness. They did everything as the Lord commanded, the Word says, and my suspicion is that they were graded not on accuracy of detail but on the spirit of the thing. And on the spirit of it, they passed.

Which means that our call is not to perfectionism, but to perfect love. A good spirit. No judgment … just a commitment to being in community under the Lordship of a holy God.

So this month, our church begins in earnest a construction project that will take several months to complete. If God is consistent, and if he tends to act currently as he has in the past, then we will be graded in this project not on accuracy but on the spirit of the work. By that standard, I hope we pass and when we are done, I sure hope we will take the example of Moses,  accept the finished product as it is and move on to the work of leading people through deserts and into the promises of God.

In his book, The Beatitudes, Simon Tugwell writes,

God loves who we really are – whether we like it or not. God calls us, as he did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual make-up can render us more presentable to Him … His love which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into his truth. “Come to me now,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment, your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place.

This is a good word about a creative God who does not poke around in our souls for deficiencies. He does not look for the flaw, nor does he grade us as we do one another (or worse, ourselves). We know this because when God himself entered into the original construction project (creation), he called all of it good. There is no record of tweaking, just enjoyment of the process. And then when he was finished, he rested and that rest is proof that our Father is at peace with us, his creation. He can look at us and be at peace not because everything is perfect, but because He is perfect.

His example is our directive: Do your best, then rest in Jesus. Rest is how we demonstrate trust in the goodness of God. Rest is a willingness to trust God with the questions and to believe that the best we can do is good enough for him.

When is the last time you rested in Jesus an act of trust in God?

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